Surprise was their secret weapon. At first glance, Michele Anderson and Annemarie McKay reinforced a common male “boobs and bums” perception of public relations dolly-birds. As nubile and sylph-like a pair as you could find in the business world, they looked perfect to decorate a cocktail function or champagne breakfast, surrounded by their team of clones.
But behind those saccharine looks were t wo of the sharpest marketing minds in the country. And when client condescension turned to shocked realisation, the founders of Magna Carta began building what became the biggest and most successful reputation management group in South Africa.
But all good things come to an end. Three years ago Anderson attracted the attention of executives in the Ketchum Group, Magna Carta’s global affiliate, and now occupies a top position at its Atlanta headquar t er s where s he manages Ketchum’s business development for the whole of the southern US. And now McKay Ichikowitz (to use her married name) is calling it quits after three years as CEO. She’ll be spending more time with her young family, and r unning t he Ichikowitz Family Foundation dedicated to heritage, environment and education.
It’s 19 years since Anderson and Ichikowitz started out together with Welcome Msomi as Msomi Hunt Lascaris, eventually ending up at the head of what became Magna Carta. They knew the value of their sex appeal, but that was directed towards the more important objective of putting PR on the map as a core business tool.
“We made it serious, challenged the status quo and converted PR into reputation management,” says Ichikowitz. “When we were the runner up in the specialist agency of the year award category in the Nineties, we felt PR had come of age.”
By 2006, Magna Carta had become the biggest PR consultancy in the country and has continued to maintain its lead over competitors. Today it is a company of 70 people earning R70m-R80m in annual fees and commission, and it has been named PR Consultancy of the Year four times in a row by Tony Koenderman’s AdReview. When it won the Eskom account five years ago, it signed SA’s biggest PR contract ever, doubling the size of the agency.
The focus in recent years has shifted to building an African PR network, understanding social media and establishing proper measurement of PR results. For years, PR practitioners have relied on an unscientific methodology of measuring column centimetres, and valuing it at a multiple (usually three) of the publication’s advertising rate.
Proper measurement, says Ichikowitz, entails understanding what the client wants to achieve, adjusting the valuation for relevance and prominent usage, and measuring quality as well as quantity. “We are one of very few PR consultancies with a dedicated resource looking at measurement,” she says.
In the era of social media, PR has grown in importance, and it is no longer uncommon for the PR arm to take the lead role in a marketing campaign, says Ichikowitz.
TBWA CEO Derek Bouwer says the agency’s legacy is a solid blue-chip client base to which it offers globally aligned and innovative PR services. It was recently named by the Holmes Report as the 2013 African PR Agency of the Year.
Michele Anderson (left) & Annemarie
McKay in ealier times